A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award. The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.
From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century. Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation. I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté). Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions: for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten. It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike. We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly. This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime. If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work. Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc. The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused. This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly. Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline. But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.
I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again. There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat. There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided. It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.
The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with. To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary. Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them. I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus. And so on–“. Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel. There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation: this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting. Do give it a read soon: you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.